Week Four: Oral History

This week’s readings focused on the topic of oral history and its use within the field of history. The primary reading was The Oral History Manual by Barbara Sommer and Mary Quinlan, which served as an introduction to what constitutes an oral history and how to correctly set up and preform one. The book began by defining that oral history was a “primary source material created in an interview setting with … a participant in an event… for the purpose of preserving the information and making it available to others” (S&Q). Through this definition, the manual stressed the importance of prep work leading up to the interview in which one had to do research on the general topic being covered and the individuals being interviewed. This connected to one of the most significant parts of the book in that it discussed the role of the interviewee and that one must be chosen based on what information each can bring to the project and that one must make sure the interviewee is comfortable so that he or she is willing to share deeper information. Through its detailed discussions on the pre and post work of the interview the manual is extremely useful in understanding how successfully complete an oral history.

The other three readings for this week also aided in the understanding of the importance and use of oral histories as well as potential problems one can face. Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority, focused on the development of oral history and how it was seen as a challenge to traditional sources of history, since it could “redefine and redistribute intellectual authority” (Frisch, xx). Oral history therefore has the ability to acquire histories of those who would be otherwise unable to tell their stories, which gave it, as Frisch believed a sense of authorship and authority. This focus on source and authority of the oral histories connected to the last two readings, Sherrie Tucker’s “When Subjects Don’t Come Out” and Leon Fink’s “When Community Comes Home to Roost.” Both examined the use of oral histories and problems that can be encountered along the way. Tucker’s oral history project led her to interview members of all girl bands from the 1940’s, in which she expected to hear some stories of non-traditional sexuality. However, all those she interviewed refused to directly come out, which led to questions over what can be learned from silence and how to deal with the different cultural understandings between generations. Indeed, it illustrated that oral histories can still have an impact on understanding the past even when interviewees are not forthcoming since one can examine possible reasons for their silence. The lack of expected information gained from an oral history connected to the Fink reading since in his account, Cooleemee Historical Association focused on using oral history to create heritage over history. To Fink this meant that they focused on only positive and nostalgic aspects of the community as opposed to gaining a wide range of perspectives. Indeed, Fink was concerned since it creates a “problem of selected memory” in that it selects one narrative on which the entire communities history is based (Fink, 135). This therefore raised the value of being alert to possible issues that can have a deep impact on the outcome of an oral history. All these readings together help create a strong understanding of what goes into making a successful oral history as well as how to the make use of the information one gained even if it was not what one expected.

Furthermore, on a more personal note, the readings showed me the need to expand on the informal oral history I did with my grandfather on his World War II experience in high school and to do it with deeper opened questions in order to get a fuller story of his time in the Pacific. However, while it would not live up to the standards put forth by The Oral History Manual; I thought it would be nice to upload a portion of my informal oral history so that others can hear part of his account.



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